By Robert Marvi May 7, 2022 @robmarv01
Reprint from Pro Football History
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In the 1980s, the Washington Redskins were one of the best and most feared teams in the National Football League. They had a bunch of colorful characters, as well as a hard-hitting style of play. Washington featured a group of rough-and-tumble offensive linemen called “The Hogs,” and they also featured a star defensive end named Dexter Manley. Manley became one of the league’s better pass rushers, and his talent and skill took him to the pinnacle of the sport. But he had a number of indiscretions off the field that marred his legacy and public image. However, Manley has also been an inspiration to others, and ironically, it was because of some of his struggles.
Overcoming A Rough Childhood
Dexter Keith Manley was born on Feb. 2, 1959, in Houston, Texas to Jewellean and Carl Manley. He was one of four children, the others being his brothers Reggie and Gregory and his sister Cynthia. As a young child, Manley struggled to learn how to read. Many young children have challenges in that area, but for Manley, learning to read at an age-appropriate level must’ve felt like trying to scale Mount Everest. By the second grade, he had already gotten 19 failing grades at Douglas Elementary School. During Sunday School, when he was asked to read scripture, he would say that he left his glasses at home in order to avoid the embarrassment of being behind his peers as a reader. Manley didn’t wear glasses. He was simply lying. On top of that, he has something of a reputation as a hoodlum. One day, he body-slammed one of his second-grade teachers into a blackboard. He also got into lots of fights with his classmates, and he had a tendency to poke people’s eyeballs with his fingers.
Manley was ordered to repeat the second grade because of his poor marks, but on his second try, he didn’t do better, and his parents were asked to come to campus for a confidential meeting.
The people in charge at Douglas Elementary thought they had a solution. They labeled him as “educable mentally retarded” and placed him in special education. The change was rough on Manley. He remembers feeling “resentful,” as he saw the difference in curriculum between his non-disabled peers and his special ed classes. This change in curriculum created a new problem. The “normal” kids started recess at 11:30 a.m., while Manley’s special ed class did so at 12:30 p.m. As recess ended for the non-disabled kids, they would go to the windows in front of Manley’s special ed classroom and chant, “Mentally retarded . . . mentally retarded.” Larry Marshall, who became the school’s principal a little later, felt that the decision to place Manley in special ed was simply wrong. “You could tell he was not a mentally retarded child . . . I mean, here was this kid, and yes, we had our encounters. Dexter had a mind of his own, and it was very obvious we had to stay a couple of steps ahead of him,” Marshall said.
Perhaps Manley’s one saving grace was his father Carl. On one hand, the elder Manley considered Dexter his least favorite son – his favorite was Reggie, dexter’s older brother who was a star basketball player in high school. However, the elder Manley also told people that Dexter would be the one person among his kids who would make it. Perhaps he didn’t know for sure, but sometimes parents who say such things somehow know. When Manley started junior high, he was no longer in special education. Good riddance, he must’ve thought. He still had academic hardships, but his parents were there to provide support and structure. Father Carl wouldn’t let any of his kids go play outside until they finished their homework.
Another thing that kept Manley in line was the fact that he knew other kids who had dropped out of school and struggled to get by, or worse. By junior high, and especially by the time he made it to Yates High School in Houston, he had learned how to be polite, which helped him stay in the good graces of his teachers. It also didn’t hurt that he was a prodigy on the gridiron. Perhaps the fact that he was a star football player in a part of the nation where high school football is almost like a second religion helped him skate through his academics. Or perhaps he was simply putting lots of effort into his studies, just enough to pass his classes.
“Those teachers recognized that I was on the football team. It’s the same old system,” Manley said. “You show up in class. You’re doing the best you can. And, sometimes they gave me a passing grade.”
By the end of his senior year of high school, things were looking up for Manley. He was nearing graduation, which was a miraculous enough accomplishment for someone who was once labeled “mentally retarded,” whether it was true or not. He was also on his way to play college football for Oklahoma State University, which would offer him not just a scholarship, but also a car. But he now had another piece of adversity to deal with. His girlfriend, Stephayne Baker, was pregnant, and he didn’t know how to handle it. Manley’s mother suggested he marry her, but his father disapproved of doing so. He decided to marry Baker but to keep it a secret from dad. A few months later, when he found out, the elder Manley was livid. But it didn’t matter too much, because the younger Manley was off to college.
Oklahoma State Bound
At Oklahoma State, Manley would have the good fortune of playing under head coach Jimmy Johnson, who years later would go on to guide the Dallas Cowboys to back-to-back Super Bowl championships. But in college, Johnson didn’t play Manley much, and supposedly, the coaching staff didn’t think too much of him. According to Manley, one day the coaching staff was watching a game film of him, and they asked him to come into the room, when, according to him, they scorched him to a crisp. “They said, ‘Dex, you’re never going to be——,’” said Manley. “‘You’re never going to be nothing but a factory worker, digging ditches all your life.’”
Neither Johnson nor defensive coordinator Pat Jones recalled the incident. As a freshman, Manley felt lonely on campus. He was becoming a contradiction of a man, someone who could be outwardly lovable and sensitive, but was also known to talk a big game. He also dressed lavishly, and he drove a new Mercury Cougar, two qualities that may have made him a target one night. When Manley attempted to back out of a parking space, two men wouldn’t let him do so. He apparently challenged them to a fight, and they told him to come to their fraternity house and back up his words. Manley did, and he won the fight. However, one of the men had a razor blade hidden in his hand, and it created a huge wound in Manley’s head, which required 18 stitches to close. The resulting scar is still visible to this day.
He also had to deal with more adversity in his family. His father Carl died from a bout with colon cancer early in his college career, then mere months later, his brother Reggie died after being shot twice during a robbery. Reggie had gone into a downward spiral following the death of the Manley family patriarch. Luckily, Dexter had football as his north star. He continued to struggle academically, but through hard work and the help of a special companion, he got by. Manley divorced Baker during his junior year, and although it wouldn’t be a smooth separation (she would later file suit against him to claim back child support payments), he found a new flame in Tammy Wilmore.
They would study together, and she would even read to him and help him with his writing skills on occasion. There was more adversity for Manley to deal with, although it was of his own making. After his father passed away and before his marriage ended, he received Social Security survivor-benefit checks, but he claimed he was single. He ended up being ordered to pay a $5,000 fine and was placed on three years of probation under the Youth Corrections Act. If he wasn’t a great individual NCAA player, he was somewhere on the radar of NFL scouts heading into the 1981 NFL Draft. Coach Johnson says that he and his staff put in some good words for Manley, but he claims that his coaches did the opposite. It seemed the chip on his shoulder was only growing bigger and bigger.
Mr. Manley Goes To Washington
Manley felt that he would be a first-round draft pick, but instead, he fell to the fifth round, where the Redskins took him with the 119th overall pick. At the time, they were struggling, but the winds of change were already starting to blow. They had a solid quarterback named Joe Theismann, as well as a young wide receiver named Art Monk, who would end up in the Hall of Fame. That year, Joe Gibbs, who had previously been the offensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers. Gibbs had been a key figure behind the Chargers’ innovative “Air Coryell” offensive scheme that would change the NFL game, but it would be on the defensive side of the ball where the Redskins would make their name, and Manley would be a huge reason why.
He had six sacks as a rookie while starting nine of the 16 games he played in, and the Redskins finished 8-8, a two-game improvement over the year before. They weren’t a good team, but they were just getting started. The 1982 season was shortened to nine games by a player’s strike, and as a result, the league expanded the playoff field to 16 teams in what became known as the “Super Bowl Tournament.” Washington finished first in points allowed with the help of Manley, who recorded 6.5 sacks, and they finished with a dominant 8-1 record, which was tops in the NFC and tied for the best record overall.
After easily getting past the Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings in the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Redskins matched up with their old conference rivals, the Dallas Cowboys, in the NFC Championship Game. Manley made his presence known in this contest. The Redskins went up 14-3, and with 28 seconds left in the first half, he delivered a big hit on Cowboys quarterback Danny White that caused him to sustain a concussion and miss the rest of the contest.